|Lupita Nyong'o during an award ceremony PHOTO: COURTESY|
By Craig Otieno
Kenya: It is a script that is still being written.
That line pretty much summarises the life story of Lupita Amondi Nyong’o, the Oscar-nominated actress who has dominated the headlines for her role in the movie 12 Years a Slave.
If all goes her way, Lupita, who turned 31 on Saturday, and whose second movie Non-Stop was released on Friday, will already be celebrating an Oscar.
From now on, her story will not be about the few steps she did or did not make to the podium to give an acceptance speech, but the relatively short time it took her to get a seat in the 3,332-capacity Dolby Theatre as an Oscar nominee.
Scratch that. The story will be about the short period it took her to become the talk of Hollywood, the world — a darling of talk show hosts, movie directors, fashion stylists and haute couture designers.
That journey did not start this weekend.
“Lupita was very active in acting in school plays,” says Patrick Teyie of Rusinga School which she joined after leaving Loreto Convent Msongari in Standard Six.
When she left Rusinga, she went to Mexico for close to one year to study Spanish at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma De Mexico.
Her teacher of English at Rusinga, the late Mutegi Njiru was a passionate thespian and had worked on stage productions for the school.
He died in the 1998 bombing of United States Embassy in Nairobi, and the following year, Rusinga introduced the Mutegi Njiru Memorial Shield to be awarded to students who contributed greatly in the field of theatrical arts.
“Lupita was the first recipient of that award, having being declared the most promising dramatist of 1999,” says Mr Teyie, who is the head of Senior School.
He adds that the school does not teach drama as a subject but encourages students to freely exercise their talents in different disciplines.
When she came back from Mexico, Lupita joined the St. Mary’s School to study for her International Baccalaureate, but she did not forget to exercise her talent as she had been encouraged at Rusinga, so she re-joined the local theatre scene.
“I worked with her in her teething years. She was still in school but she stood out as a focused person,” says Sammy Mwangi of Heartstrings Entertainment. “The state of local theatre was wanting and had no direction at all but I could see in her a passion that was resilient and determined to make a bad situation better.”
Hints of success
Sammy says that in hindsight, he can pick up hints of success as it was rare for students who were appearing in local productions to consider a future in theatrical arts.
“It was unheard of for anyone to choose acting as a career, but with her, it was different.”
Focused and determined, Lupita could always ask her seniors if it was wise to peg a career on theatre so she could weigh her options and decide to change course or soldier on.
“She chose the right path, to push on and make a difference for herself and not wait for change to come from outside,” Sammy says.
“The fruits are quite obvious and I am so happy that she represents everything that the system was out to overrule.”
She might have loved acting, but a little parental push from daddy also did some trick, considering that Prof Anyang’ Nyong’o was an ardent theatre goer and was on a first name basis with the actors and directors.
He had asked Heartstrings Entertainment directors if they could give the diminutive Lupita a chance to audition and determine if she was good enough for their productions.
“There was no preferential treatment,” says Victor Ber of Heartstrings. “As far as I can remember, she was given an equal chance like all the other young actors and actresses but I cannot remember which production she was eventually cast in.”
But Victor remembers one or two things.
“Unlike most of us in theatre, she spoke very good English, without a tinge of the local slang. She was well-mannered, confident and very polished.”
Polished Lupita has been. She has that bewitching, disarming, bedazzling smile — an innocent-looking face that never seems to age, but which can display all the emotions as and when required. That is why she makes directors’ work easy.
But behind that innocent smile, that childlike face, there has been some pain, some heartache caused by being discriminated against in Kenya, by her people, Kenyans.
Her dark skin did not favour her. Initially. But now, it is the talk of the world, and more so in Kenya where some people thought that she needed to cosmetically brighten it up in order to make it in movies.
She did not feel beautiful. “When I went back to Mexico that was the first time I really felt beautiful,” Lupita told Julie Masiga and Clay Muganda then of DRUM magazine in 2009, just a few weeks before she left Kenya to join Yale School of Drama.
“In Mexico, there are no black people so they were all fascinated by my skin colour. For them I was this exotic thing and people would stare at me when I walked down the street.”
When she came back home, she entered the Miss Malaika pageant and went on to be crowned the inaugural competition’s winner in 2002.
“By entering the Miss Malaika contest, I was looking to reaffirm the self confidence that I had acquired in Mexico. I identified myself as beautiful and became even more beautiful as a result,” she said in that interview.
That Lupita was discriminated against gets the goat of Buddha Blaze, an events organiser and talent scout. “It was really sad to see that people did not like her natural beauty,” he says. “People did not embrace her as much as they would have appreciated a light skin.”
Warding off attacks
Blaze, who is a friend of the Nyong’os, has been warding off attacks on Lupita on the Twitter-verse after some Kenyans posted rants of tweets claiming she rode on the backs of poor taxpayers that her father stood on when he was a minister.
“Some Kenyans do not appreciate people for what they are, but for who they are,” Blaze says. “She will not be put down by these attacks considering that five or six years ago, Kenyan bloggers called her so many names, but she soldiered on.”
Even though Lupita did not feel beautiful as she admitted, she knew how to execute her roles. “She surprised everyone when she came here in 1997,” says David Opondoe, the general manager of Phoenix Players. “At 14, she was the youngest to audition here, but she was more confident than the seasoned actors and those who came here when they were older.”
She was cast as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet and her confidence was exhibited in a kissing scene. “She executed it so well that Romeo, one George Mungai, a seasoned-actor was embarrassed.”
Opondoe says she started being bold and confident on the stage at an early age. “We could tell she was talented and she learnt how to gesture, how to position herself on the stage and how to mean what she was saying with the right facial expressions.”
Normally, those who have acting experience in stage productions are good movie actors because there are no retakes in stage productions. They make directors’ work easier.
“In stage productions, one executes an action once because the audiences do not have the benefits of pausing, stopping and replaying,” says Opondoe who was cast alongside Lupita in There Goes the Bride, her second play at Phoenix. “I had been in theatre from 1992, yet she gave me a run for my role and we realised that she was ahead of her time.”
By then, most people were not treating theatre as a career, but as a hobby and were not in it for the money. But they had bills to pay, so they left to look for better-paying jobs.
Photographs at Phoenix show several Kenyan television presenters and musicians who had roles in various productions, but since they did not have their hearts and minds in the arts, they left, unlike Lupita who followed her heart and stayed the course.
“When it comes to staying focussed, no one beats her,” says chief executive officer of Al Is On Productions, Alison Ngibuini.
She worked with Lupita in the Unicef-funded Shuga series in 2008. “She stays in character through and through and never gets distracted until the scene is over.”
Alison was a co-producer of Shuga, a production of MTV Base’s Staying Alive Foundation. She says Lupita was very pleasant and fun to work with. “We talked about a lot of stuff including fashion, and she has it all. Even when she hugs, it is a genuine hug.”
When Lupita was in Shuga, she did not receive so much love from Kenyans who kept taunting her on new media platforms because of her dark skin and short hair, but she was not put down, and as usual, stayed focussed on the project.
The negative comments did not bother even the directors as they knew they had a rare and special breed of an actress, someone who could be depended upon because she understood what was expected of and from her.
“The director kept saying that Lupita was going places,” Alison says, adding that she gets in to character easily, fast, and is very good at memorising her lines.
“She is a go-getter, a dreamer and she is very good at what she does, “says Alison, whose production house created Mali, the Kenyan soap opera that airs locally.
Lupita makes a cameo appearance in Mali, which has been snapped by networks in West Africa. “She has worked hard to be memorable. She embraces acting and gives it her all. She is the perfect all round artiste.”
Those who know of Lupita’s earlier works know she is an all rounder in theatrical arts. In 2008, she wrote, directed and produced a documentary In My Genes, which shares the individual experiences of eight people living with albinism in Kenya.
That work reveals that film works is in her genes as it received high acclaim at various international festivals including the 2009 New York African Film Festival where she was the youngest filmmaker.
It was voted as the Official Souvenir Selection at the Africala Film Festival in Mexico and the Best Film 2008 and Best Documentary 2008 at the Pioneer Valley Five-College Film Festival in the United States.
Even though In My Genes received more recognition out there, she had words of advice for local filmmakers. “We must not start our industry trying to catch up with Hollywood, Bollywood or Nollywood. It should be about us doing our own thing. Our industry should start with work first and the ‘industry’ will come naturally.”
In 2009, she had this to say about African films: “Film is a foreign concept to Africans. It is something that came from outside, but that does not mean we cannot use it as the medium to tell our authentic African stories,” she said. She added that “in Kenya, we are doing too much copy cat work and we need to concentrate on what we need as a society and tell our stories accordingly.”
While she was working on In my Genes, she was also part of the team that created, pitched and won the opportunity in a Pan-African music video-making competition to produce Kenya’s leading music video, Little Things You Do, performed by Wahu and Bobi Wine.
From her multiple roles in the video-making competition project, you can tell she is a workhorse.
“I organised and obtained all essential support for the production team, including recruiting production crew and staff in one day and then co-ordinated all activities of production including the shooting schedule, transport co-ordination, casting, art direction, wardrobe and make-up,” she said in 2009.
She also oversaw the location/set, props, equipment, catering, crew hire and contracts; managed and monitored production finances and budget, including paying outside vendors and contractors. When the filming was done, she assisted with editing and revision together with the director and editor.
The documentary was a part of her final thesis at Hampshire College in Amherst, Massachusetts which she attended for her undergraduate degree in Film and Theatre.
Hampshire is a liberal arts institution and does not issue a grade, but an evaluation. And her final evaluation was so good that when she wanted to study for her Masters of Fine Arts in Dramatic Acting, she had the confidence to turn down a couple of prestigious institutions that had accepted her.
New York University was one such institution that she turned down, just after her first audition. “It is such a nice campus and the people there were so good to me but it was always a big dream of mine to go to Yale.”
She had also auditioned for the same course at the University of California in San Diego and was accepted, even without an official college transcript.
She said thousands from all over the world auditioned at Yale and not only did she get in, but she got a scholarship too, and joined in 2009.
The statement that she got a scholarship should put to rest all the allusions that she made it on the backs of Kenyan taxpayers, and confirm that it was her industry that pushed her to great heights.
“Lupita was extremely professional, determined and gave 110 per cent in everything she did,” says Cajetan Boy who worked with her in 2006 during the Maisha screenwriters and directors laboratory/workshop in Uganda where she was a production assistant.
“She always seemed like she would make it and the surprise for me is just how fast it happened.”
Cajetan, a veteran Kenyan thespian and filmmaker who is the proprietor of Et Cetera Productions, says that he required a young actress at the workshop as the one originally cast could not make it.
“I spotted Lupita and asked if she could act the part. She agreed on condition that I ask the workshop coordinators who agreed as long as it did not interfere with her work,” Cajetan explains. “She acted in the movie, performed her duties and nobody complained.”
Her ingenuity surprised even veterans like Cajetan, who learned a thing or two from her during the workshop. “I wanted to learn how to shoot a love scene and I mentioned that to her, upon which she told me something I remember to date,” Cajetan says. “She said that how a person touches another is very important in making love scenes look real and convincing.”
Cajetan may not have believed her at first, but she was ready to walk the talk: During meal breaks, she would spend time with the male actor, touching and talking to him. “She was so intense that people thought she and the actor were dating, but it was just work.”
That relationship gave birth to a movie titled Roho and proved that Lupita had her heart in acting. She went on to study at Yale from where she auditioned for the role in 12 Years a Slave, a movie which has put her on a journey to bigger conquests.
And she admits that she is not there yet. “I am not a filmmaker in competition with other filmmakers. I am on my own path and I have not arrived. Every other person’s journey is as valid as mine.”